I mentioned in a previous blog post that one of the other “word hats” I wear is as the editor of Just Labs magazine. Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing some articles published in recent issues about an adventure with a Labrador retriever we are “hosting.” She’s a breeder mom for Leader Dogs For the Blind, and our job is to help her bring tomorrow’s leaders into the world. Along the way, I’ll throw in some excerpts from my current work-in-progress – which involves a particularly furry character…
We’d been contemplating bringing a new dog into the house – Ginny was just about to turn three years old – but the prospect of training and housebreaking a pup was about as appealing as stepping into what a non-trained and non-housebroken pup leaves you to find with your bare feet in the middle of the night. (And don’t even pretend like it’s never happened to you.) We had looked into a rescue the year before and were really close, but some changing events at our house prevented the adoption.
So my wife, in the here-and-there bits of her spare time, went to work researching “things,” and proffered her idea – and coupled it with the same smile and twinkle in her eyes that made me fall in love with her nearly twenty years ago.
Like I said…
And that’s how Cici, a three-year-old yellow Labrador from Leader Dogs for the Blind, came to join the Smith household.
Most people, I’m sure, are familiar with the necessity of service dog organizations such as Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB) to foster out their adolescent dogs, individually, to “puppy-raisers.” These families socialize and provide basic obedience training, usually for around a year, prior to the dog’s return to the clinic for formalized training in their service role. Cici, however, is different in that she is an LDB “mom,” part of the breeding stock. LDB has a program in which the breeders – females and males – are fostered out to “host homes.” She’s not a Leader Dog herself, but she’s responsible for producing tomorrow’s leaders.
On the day we picked up Cici from the LDB facility, she was one of two Labs we were able to “interview”; she instantly wormed her way into our hearts and, most especially, the kids’ hearts. And Ginny’s – that first night home, the two Labradors, new “sisters,” fell asleep together in front of the fire on the same blanket, back to back, snoring away after a full evening of exploring and playing in the house.
The non-profit Leader Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1939 in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and is one of the oldest – and largest – service dog organizations in the country. Rachelle Kniffen, Director of Communications, says that an “average of 200 dogs per year [are paired] with people who are blind or deaf-blind.” These are usually all Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds.
The first training step for many service dog organizations is the puppy-raiser step, in which candidate dogs are given their start in a foster home, and where the making of a future service dogs begin. LDB is no different.
“Once a litter of puppies is returned to our facility, they are sent to individual volunteer puppy-raiser homes until they are fourteen months of age,” says Stacey Booms, LDB Breeding Specialist. “During this time, the puppy-raiser teaches the puppy obedience and self-control. The puppies are exposed to a variety of situations including schools, restaurants, churches, theatres, stores, different forms of transportation, and require a lot of socialization.”
You’ve probably seen these squirts out and about, cute-as-can-be Lab pups sporting a colorful bandana with the words “Future Leader Dog” or some such on them. It makes sense economically for the organization and developmentally for the pup to be raised in a home and experience, right from the start, the sorts of environments they will see on their everyday jobs.
“Puppy raisers report to volunteer puppy counselors about specific goals that the puppies must meet for each period during their growth,” Booms continues. “They also are required to fill out questionnaires on a regular basis so we can monitor the progress of each puppy to ensure its greatest chance for success. We have a large network of support to help our raisers fulfill such a great and wonderful commitment.”
Once pups reach the age to be returned to the facility, they are tested to see if they are candidates to go on to formalized training for their specialized service. If they aren’t, the puppy-raiser is given the option of adopting; homes are found for all dogs that do not make the cut.